Daniel Nemukuyu Senior Court Reporter
Legal experts and human rights organisations have hailed the Constitutional Court for outlawing child marriages but urged Government to move in with speed to align the laws with the Constitution and to criminalise the breaches in order to punish offenders.
The Constitutional Court yesterday declared 18 years as the legal minimum age of marriage.
Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba ruled that the Constitution was clear on 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Zimbabwe and that with effect from January 20, 2016 no underage child should enter into a valid marriage.
In an interview, top lawyer Mr Jonathan Samukange of Venturas and Samukange Legal Practitioners said Justice, Legal and Parliament Affairs Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa should quickly table the amendments to Parliament.
“The minister should table the amendments to the marriage laws as quickly as possible to criminalise the act of marrying or impregnating children below the age of 18.
“As it stands, it is not yet an offence until the laws have been amended to make it criminal,” he said.
Constitutional lawyer Mr Tendai Biti, who successfully argued the child marriage case in court, said it was now up to the law makers to come up with laws that actualise the judgment.
“Parliament must come up with laws that actualise the judgment. The judges did what they are supposed to do to protect the Bill of Rights. They did it brilliantly.
“Now that the age of 18 has been declared as the minimum age of marriage, there is now need to urgently harmonise the laws with the constitution and the court judgment,” said Mr Biti.
Women In Law Southern Africa director Ms Slyvia Chirawu said the judgment was an important one to all fair-minded Zimbabweans.
“The ruling is a landmark for all women, girls and every fair-minded Zimbabwean. That is what we call constitutionalism as the judgment has clarified Section 78(1) of the Constitution which appeared vague to many people on the minimum age of marriage,” she said.
Ms Chirawu urged all stakeholders including churches, traditional leadership, civic organisations to play their part in raising awareness.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights also called for the urgent realignment of the laws with the Constitution.
ZADHR said the judgement would go a long way in preserving the sexual reproductive health and human rights of minors who are below the age of 18. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), who also supported Mr Biti in the court case, welcomed the judgment.
“Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights welcomes this judicious judgment outlawing the practice of subjecting girl children to early marriages and having their fundamental rights infringed upon.
“The outlawing of this primitive practice is in line with international, regional and national efforts to end child marriages. Child marriages pose a serious risk to the lives and future of children particularly girls, as well as to the developmental aspirations of a nation,” the statement reads.
ZLHR urged stakeholders to raise awareness on the latest development and harmful impact of child marriages.
“It’s now left for stakeholders to develop strategies and action plans to raise awareness of and address the harmful impact of child marriages.
“Although the ruling is a victory and the fact that the practice of child marriages has been recognised and outlawed, a lot needs to be done in implementing it and educating Zimbabweans about the legal position so that everyone is aware of this position,” ZLHR said.
Veritas Zimbabwe, an organisation that funded and brought up the challenge, hailed the Constitutional Court bench for a job well done.
“This is a great day for gender equality, women’s rights, children’s rights and the fight against poverty.
“This progressive decision is a mark that the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court is building up a body of constitutional jurisprudence which will also be quoted in other jurisdictions and should assist the Africa-wide campaign against child marriage,” read a statement by Veritas.
In a joint statement, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and Plan International, welcomed the judgment which they said reaffirmed constitutional principles of broader reach because it shades more light on such contentious issues that justified discrimination based on gender.
“Child marriage violates the fundamental human rights of girls and boys, but disproportionately girls. Not only are children denied their right to consensual marriage, but often their basic rights to education, protection, economic engagement and reproductive health care,” read the statement.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) said the judgment had an effect of ending child abuse.
“PSAf views this ruling as a springboard to ending gender based violence, child abuse and other human rights violations associated with child marriage.
“We are pleased that this ruling provides a basis for the protection of children from early marriage and its associated vices.
“We now call on the authorities to ensure that this ruling is observed by all stakeholders, including religious and customary leaders,” read PSAf statement.